The Consensus 100 Greatest War Movies

May 2011
New Iberia, La.
28. Spartacus (1960)

SYNOPSIS: "Spartacus" is an Old School epic based on the famous Spartacus rebellion during the Roman Empire. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a gladiator trainee who leads an escape from a training school. He has a romance with a slave named Varinia (Jean Simmons). He and his slave army attempt to take ship out of Italy while Roman dictator wannabe Crassus (Laurence Olivier) manuevers to prevent this. Roman Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) schemes politically against Crassus.

BACK-STORY: “Spartacus” is a famous historical epic released in 1960. It is based on the book by Howard Fast. Kirk Douglas was fascinated by the novel and wanted to ease his disappointment over losing the starring role in “Ben Hur”. He recruited Olivier, Laughton, and Ustinov. When Fast proved unable to make the jump to screenwriter, noted commie Dalton Trumbo was brought in. This was a daring move as Trumbo was, at that time, blacklisted as a member of the Hollywood Ten. He had run afoul of the House Unamerican Activities Committee during McCarthyism and was writing screenplays under pseudonyms. After completion of the film, Douglas insisted Trumbo be credited by his real name – a move that ended the blacklisting movement. Kudos! The first director (Anthony Mann) did not meet Douglas’ standards so he was replaced by Stanley Kubrick. It was not exactly smooth sailing after the change. The massive egos of the stars made each scene difficult. Kubrick looked back on the film with far from fond memories. Based on his recollections, you would think the movie was terrible. He wanted the movie to be more gritty and less a hagiography. He wanted more battle scenes, but test audiences reacted negatively (boo!). The movie was the most expensive to date ($12 million). It was Universal Studio’s biggest money maker until “Airport” ten years later. It won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Ustinov), Art Direction, Costume Design, and Cinematography (Russell Metty). Metty was upset that Kubrick often overruled him on shots and actually Kubrick did most of the cinematography, he still accepted the Oscar. It was nominated for Editing and Score. It won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, one of the rare winners that was not even nominated for Best Picture. The winner that year was “The Apartment” (94% on Rotten Tomatoes). The other nominees were “Elmer Gantry” (97%), “Sons and Lovers” (75%), “The Sundowners” (80%), and “The Alamo” (50%). “Spartacus” has a 96%.
It is #5 on AFI’s list of greatest epics. #81 on the list of greatest films. Spartacus is the #22 hero.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, TCM, imdb, Spartacus: Film and History by Martin Winkler, ed., I am Spartacus! by Kirk Douglas

1. The Catholic Legion of Decency put pressure on Universal to cut shot of severing of limbs. drowning in soup, blood spurting on Crassus when he kills Draba, and hints of homosexuality (“oysters and snails”)

2. Novelist Howard Fast wrote the source novel. He was a communist and went to prison for contempt of Congress. In prison, he began researching the life of Spartacus. Upon release, he was under surveillance from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Hoover accumulated over one thousand pages in his file. When the novel was finished, Hoover put pressure on publishers to not publish it. Fast ended up self-publishing. Later, Fast broke with the Communist Party after Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes. Douglas became interested in a film about Spartacus and optioned the book for just $100, but Fast insisted on writing the screenplay. Douglas agreed, but was skeptical of Fast’s ability to write a competent screenplay. Douglas was right. Fast’s first draft was terrible and Douglas secretly brought in Trumbo who was writing under the name Sam Jackson.

3. The movie almost did not get made because there was already a movie about Spartacus in production. It was to be based on the novel “The Gladiators” and was to star Yul Brynner.

4. The first choice for Varinia was Jeanne Moreau (Christine in “The Train”), but she turned it down. Jean Simmons (a friend of Douglas) pushed hard for the role, but Douglas insisted that he wanted an actress that did not have an English or American accent. He ended up settling on an unknown German beauty named Sabine Bethmann. Kubrick convinced Douglas to dump Bethmann by proving to him that she was incapable of showing emotion. (Her movie career collapsed after this.) Simmons got her chance and it worked out even though the production was set back when she had a health crisis that lasted five weeks.

5. Kubrick was a prick to work with. At one point, the horse-bound Douglas physically threatened him in order to get him to stop wearing the same clothes every day. They had several major disagreements on the script. For instance, Kubrick did not want to include the “I am Spartacus!” scene! Douglas insisted on it, thank God. Douglas was apoplectic when he learned that all his time on the crucifix ended up on the cutting room floor. He was not going to be seen in that final scene. Douglas won on that one also. On the other hand, Douglas was concerned about having to say the line: “I have never had a woman”. He felt it would result in giggles from the audience. It didn’t.

6. The biggest dispute was over the overarching theme of the movie. Douglas and Trumbo wanted the “Large Spartacus” - the slave revolt was a major threat to the Roman Republic and after winning several spectacular victories, was overwhelmed by three Roman armies. Kubrick and the studio wanted the “Small Spartacus” - Spartacus led a jail break that only had the goal of escaping from Italy, but was defeated by one Roman army. After the first underwhelming rough cut, Trumbo wrote a brilliant critique which steered the film back towards the Large Spartacus. However, Universal had the final cut and we ended up with Medium Spartacus.

7. Douglas broke Charles McGraw’s (the trainer) jaw when filming the soup-drowning scene. The cut that appears in the movie involves a stunt double.

8. Universal made 42 cuts to the movie before releasing it. These included: no severing pf an arm, we don’t see Gracchus suicide (which has since been lost due to poor treatment of the prints), no montage of other battles (not even the map and narration), and of course, no “snails and oysters” scene. In general, the studio cuts reduced Spartacus’ historical significance because the powers did not want the rebellion to appear to have had a chance to succeed. This might have inspired communists!

9. The “snails and oysters” scene was discovered years later, but the audio was so bad it had to be recreated. Tony Curtis came in to do his lines again, but Olivier had passed away so Anthony Hopkins did his voice, extremely well.

10. Because of Trumbo’s involvement, Hedda Hopper (an influential conservative commentator) and John Wayne urged a boycott. The American Legion organized picket lines, but Pres. Kennedy crossed one to see the picture.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = N/A
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #41
Channel 4 = #25
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = no
Rotten Tomatoes = #15

OPINION: “Spartacus” is one of the all-time great epic films. It has all the ingredients necessary for grand entertainment. It has action, suspense, romance, and a little humor. The acting is stellar and the score is outstanding. The plot is well thought out. The dialogue is crisp.

With a cast such as it is, no surprise the acting is great. Kirk Douglas is perfect in the role and it is obvious he put his soul into the role. The heavyweights (Olivier, Ustinov, and Laughton) do not disappoint and they chew the scenery less than you would expect. Ustinov is especially effective as Batiatus. He justifiably earned the Best Supporting Actor trophy. Some of the minor characters shine. Charles McGraw is great as the menacing trainer.

The romance is well done. I’m not much for mushy stuff, but if Kirk Douglas is okay with the script – fine with me. Jean Simmons is excellent as Varinia. Their opening scene is powerful, although unrealistic. It introduces the characters well. Compare their chaste relationship to the sexual escapades on the recent Starz series (which I am a big fan of) if you want to see how far morals have come since 1960. That series clearly answers the question “what would Hollywood do with Spartacus if it was remade today?” Conversely, how about that “snails and oysters” scene? There is an example of how Hollywood was too prudish in 1960.

One flaw in the movie is the lack of actual combat. Spartacus fought numerous battles with the Romans, but only one is depicted. It is pretty standard in an epic of this type to have a victory in the first half and a loss at the end. The skipping over the attack on Glabrus’ camp is head-scratching. As much as I despise “Braveheart” (Gibson clearly was inspired by “Spartacus”), it does a better job on this. Another problem is that the final battle is overrated. It has ridiculous elements (the fire rollers) and does not accurately depict Roman tactics.

In conclusion, “Spartacus” is great entertainment, but is it a great war movie? Its closest comparison would be to “Braveheart” which it is infinitely superior to. “Spartacus” is a good example of how you can tamper with history and not make it ridiculous. It seems appropriately judged at #28.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
27. Alexander Nevsky (1938)

SYNOPSIS: "Alexander Nevsky" is a Soviet film by the great Sergei Eisenstein that was made in anticipation of war with Nazi Germany. It tells the tale of the Russian hero of the 13th Century. Alexander was a nobleman who had fought the Mongols and was now called on to lead the people against the invading Teutonic Knights of Germany. The movie is based on true events, but includes two romantic subplots for the ladies. It culminates in one of the great battle scenes in war movie history - the battle on the frozen lake.

BACK-STORY: It came thirteen years after Sergei Eisenstein’s other masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin”. The film is most famous for two elements: the battle on the ice and Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Some scenes in the picture were cut to match the score. The film was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1941 and Eisenstein (and the co-director) was given the Order of Lenin by Stalin. Speaking of Stalin, he was shown a rough cut of the film and either did not like a scene showing a riot of the citizens of Novgorod or the reel was accidentally left behind so it was not vetted by the supreme ruler. Either way, the reel was left out of the final cut.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, imdb

1. It was Sergei Eisenstein’s first sound film.
2. He chose to do a film on Nevsky because little was known about him so Eisenstein hoped to be able to structure the narrative the way he wanted. He was not given the free rein that he had hoped for. For this film he was kept on a short leash as the Soviet government wanted to make sure it got the propaganda product it commissioned. Eisenstein was assigned a co-writer and co-director to look over his shoulder and make sure he did not get too creative. The co-writer was probably a KGB agent.
3. The iced lake scenes were filmed outside Moscow in the dead of summer. The cinematographer went to remarkable lengths to create the lake setting. The ice was actually asphalt and melted glass. The fake ice rested on floating pontoons that could be deflated on cue.
4. The film was removed from circulation after the Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact made the Soviet Union and Germany friends. When Germany attacked, the movie was put back in every theater.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 5.0
Video Hound = 3.1
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #5
Channel 4 = #74
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = no
Rotten Tomatoes = no

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is surprisingly accurate. Of course, you have to factor in that Alexander is a legendary figure so we can’t be sure about all of the facts. Alexander was born the son of a prince. In 1236 the people of Novgorod asked the fifteen year old prince to defend them against the Swedes and the Germans. He defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Neva in 1240. From this triumph, he acquired the sobriquet “Nevsky”. However, after the victory the boyars (nobles) forced him into exile. This is the situation when the movie begins.

The scene with the Mongols is an interpretation of Alexander’s relationship with the Golden Horde. He has been accused of collaboration, but the movie is probably close in interpreting him as realizing that the other threats needed to be dealt with and the Mongols were not threatening Russian culture. He felt paying tribute to the Mongols was the right choice among bad choices. The movie does a fair job showing how Alexander was called back to Novgorod after the fall of Pskov to the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights. The Novgorodians had a democratic custom called veche where the merchants and boyars would openly discuss a proposal such as bringing in a sixteen year old to rule them.

The Teutonic Knights were a German military order created in the Middle Ages. It was formed to aid pilgrims going to the Holy Land and established hospitals in the Middle East. The organization evolved into a military order. When the Crusades ended in failure, they took their act to Europe to defend Catholicism. Dressed in white robes with black crosses, they participated in crusades with a small c. They fought in Prussia and became a major power there. The Livonian Brothers of the Sword was created using the Teutonic model. Its goal was spreading Catholicism to the Baltic states. In 1237, it merged with the Teutonic Knights and became the Livonian Order. Subsequently, their knights expanded eastward into Russia with the intention of conquering Novgorod. They were led by a Grand Master as depicted in the film.

The Germans did capture Pskov and the occupation was probably harsh, although baby burning may have been an exaggeration. They were definitely religious and had all the trappings, but power, wealth, and territory were strong motives behind the invasion. No doubt they evidenced the religious intolerance typical of that time period. They certainly were intolerant of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

There is some dispute about what happened in the Battle of the Ice. The battle (officially the Battle of Lake Preipus) was a confrontation as the Germans marched on Novgorod. The tactic of Alexander was to lure the Knights into a frontal attack on his center. He may have feigned retreat or more likely the cavalry attack pushed his center back. At this point, Alexander assaulted the German flanks with his archers and when fresh Russian cavalry entered the battle, the Germans were routed. They retreated across the iced-over lake and many drowned when the ice collapsed under them. Some historians question the high casualty totals for the Germans and some even doubt that the famous ice cracking happened. Alexander’s closing admonition that anyone who comes to Russia with a sword will die by the sword is a repeat of his famous quote.

OPINION: This is an Eisenstein film so you can prepare to be wowed by his craft. The movie pairs the genius of Eisenstein up with the genius of Prokofiev. The score has been universally lauded. To tell the truth, I found it to be a bit bizarre.

The acting is meh. Cherkasov is a walking statue. In fact, he resembles a statue of Alexander. He spends much of the film with his hands on his hips a la Superman. The best of the cast are the two females. Vera Ivashova is a bit feisty as the love interest for Vasily and Gavrilo. Aleksandra Danilova plays the tom-boyish Vasilisa well and either by purpose or lack of training, fights like a girl in the battle.

“Alexander Nevsky” could not have been more propagandistic than if they had tried. Oh wait, they did try! And succeeded. The themes are not subtle. Clerics in general and Catholics in particular take a beating. The movie is not atheistic (Alexander even quotes Scripture at one point), but the Catholics are demonized to a cartoonish extent. Speaking of demonization, even today’s current events challenged younger generation would have been able to figure out that the movie is about the Nazi threat. It is obvious that the movie was made to warn the Russian people about the 1930s version of the Teutonic Knights.

In conclusion, I know I will take some grief for this, but this movie is overrated. I recognize that it is a masterpiece and a must see, but it does not hold up in comparison to modern classics. If you are looking at a war film purely for quality, it is disappointing. The best way I can explain this conundrum is to look at the famous battle scene. Eisenstein’s staging of the Battle of the Ice is very influential and has been copied by films like “Spartacus” and “Braveheart”. The plain fact is that although “Alexander Nevsky” did it first, no one with a right mind can argue that it does it better than most (all?) of its modern imitators. I despise “Braveheart”, but Mel Gibson’s battle scene is certainly more realistic and entertaining than Eisenstein’s.
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May 2011
New Iberia, La.
26. The Big Red One (1980)

SYNOPSIS: "The Big Red One" is a small unit movie set in WWII Europe. It follows the adventures of a crusty veteran sergeant (Lee Marvin) and his squad of four G.I.s plus a parade of expendables. They campaign through North Africa, Sicily, France, and into Germany. They participate in the Battle of Kasserine Pass, D-Day, the Huertgen Forest, and help liberate a concentration camp. It's all at the squad level and is basically a series of vignettes.

BACK-STORY: The movie is loosely based on the writer/director Samuel Fuller’s experiences with the 1st Division in WWII. The character Zab (Robert Carradine) represents Fuller. The movie was released in 1980 with a substantial amount left on the cutting room floor. In 2004, the director’s cut was released almost doubling the length of the film. The movie stars Lee Marvin in arguably his best role. Marvin was a veteran of WWII, having served in the Marines and was wounded at Saipan.

1. Samuel Fuller was a WWII veteran and some of the vignettes were based on his experiences. He participated in the North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy invasions. He served in Belgium and Czechslovakia. He was there for the liberation on Falkenau concentration camp. He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart.
2. “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” premiered at Cannes seven years after Fuller’s death. It has 47 additional minutes.
3. Two particular incidents from Fuller’s war experiences are included. When Zab (who represents Fuller in the movie) is playing basketball and sees Keiser reading his book and when Zab is a runner on Omaha Beach.
4. Warner Brothers wanted to make the movie in the 1950s (with John Wayne as the sergeant). Fuller’s “Merrill’s Marauders” was preparation for it. However, when Fuller protested the cuts the studio insisted on for MM, the project got dropped because of bad blood.
5. The movie was shot in Israel to save money. The concentration camp guards were played by Israeli soldiers.
6. Lee Marvin was 54 at the time. Mighty old for a sergeant. He supervised the mini boot camp the younger actors went through. On their way to a shooting range via taxi with Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward, Marvin opened with “**** you, Carradine”. Later when Robert asked him why he did this Marvin said “Yours was the only name I recognized”.
7. It was Fuller’s first film in eleven years.
8. Marvin was a Marine veteran of WWII in the Pacific. His wounding in the movie was reminiscent of his wounding in the war. He was wounded on Saipan when a bullet severed his sciatic nerve. He was soon after hit in the foot by a sniper. He spent over a year in hospitals.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 5.0
Video Hound = 5.0
War Movies = 3.8
Military History = #71
Channel 4 = #98
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #56

ACCURACY: “The Big Red One” is a personal story and a small unit tale, so historical accuracy is not really a factor. Two minor incidents are based on Fuller’s experiences: when Zab discovers Keiser reading a novel written by Zab and when Zab acts as a runner to inform their colonel that they have broken through on Omaha Beach. That’s pretty puny to back up the claim that the movie is based on fact. Much of the historical incidents are handled in a simplistic manner. For example, the Torch invasion where the French open fire, but once their commander is killed, it's all hugs and kisses between the new allies. One could argue that the landing at Omaha Beach was much busier and complex than the movie implies, but the low budget of the film and the emphasis on following just five soldiers makes that a moot point. The 1st Division did fight in the different locales shown in the film. It did liberate the concentration camp. The arms and equipment (with the exception of the German tanks) are authentic.

OPINION: “The Big Red One” plays as a series of weird vignettes. They are all interesting and move the narrative along and although each of them may have been based on an actual incident, it is highly unlikely than any squad would have had all these incidents happen to them. In fact, some of the scenes (e.g., the tank birth) seem unlikely to have happened to anyone. The movie gets cred because supposedly it is autobiographical, but it is telling that the companion book by Fuller is a novel.

The film is strongest in its depiction of soldier life. The dialogue rings true. The relationships are realistic, including the paternal attitude of the sergeant and the core group's refusal to bond with replacements. Fuller throws in little details that make the movie feel authentic. Things like the condoms on the rifle barrels, salt peter in the food to lower libido, and an “appearance” by “Axis Sally”.

Fuller has a sparse style. Some scenes end abruptly. It gives the movie something of an episodic feel. One begins to wonder what mess the squad will get into next. The battles are small-scale and end quickly. The battles are meant to be gritty, but the movie is firmly in the old school style, pre-“Saving Private Ryan”. One problem is the important theme of Griff’s (Mark Hammill) cowardice is never resolved. Another theme, war is brutal and arbitrary in dealing out death, is undercut by the survival of all five. In fact, only the sergeant even gets wounded. The movie would have much more powerful if one of the five had been killed. The deaths of most replacements are exaggerated, the invulnerability of the five is unrealistic.

In conclusion, “The Big Red One” is an entertaining and in many ways amusing war movie. Marvin is marvelous and the young actors are competent. It does a good job of informing the viewer about what it was like to be in a rifle squad in the 1st Division in WWII. However, on close examination, the movie does not hold up well. Much of it is implausible. This would be less of an issue if the movie was not touted as based on Fuller’s experiences. It's a fun movie, but undoubtedly overrated by many critics. On a personal note, I was very fond of this movie when it first came out but I find that each time I watch it I see more flaws.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
25. The General (1925)

SYNOPSIS: Buster Keaton plays a Southern railroad engineer during the Civil War. His beloved locomotive called "The General" is stolen by Union commandoes and Keaton attempts to get it back in a series of comic adventures. The movie was inspired by the Andrews Raid.

BACK-STORY: “The General” is Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, although it took a while for the critics and public to realize that. The movie was a commercial and critical bomb when it was released in 1926. Thankfully Keaton lived to see the revival of its reputation in the 1960s. Recently the American Film Institute ranked it the 18th greatest film and the 18th greatest comedy (don’t ask). This must have been heartening since he co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced it. He based it on "The Great Locomotive Chase" by William Pittenger. Keaton used 500 Ohio National Guardsmen for the battle scene and even had them switch uniforms to give the armies more size.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, IMDB, TCM

1. It was based on the memoir “The Great Locomotive Chase” by William Pittenger. Pittenger was a Yankee, but Buster Keaton insisted on the main character being a Southerner because he thought there would be more sympathy for the South. Keaton loved trains and had read the book when his partner suggested he make the movie.
2. Producer Joseph Schenk gave Keaton a huge budget of $400,000, which Keaton proceeded to blow up to possibly $750,000. The studio was none to happy when the movie turned into a box office and critical failure and Keaton lost a lot of power over his future films.
3. Keaton wanted to film on location and wanted to use the actual “General” which was on display in Chattanooga. The caretakers were at first open to the idea until they found out the movie was a comedy. The film was actually shot in Oregon because some old railroad lines and trains were located there. Keaton purchased two trains for the action scenes and one train for the crash. Eighteen box cars were needed to transport the equipment, props, set pieces, etc. to the location. The town of Marietta, Georgia was recreated.
4. 500 members of the Oregon National Guard were used for soldiers. They would charge in Union uniforms, then change and charge the other way in Confederate uniforms.
5. The wreck of the Texas cost $42,000 making it he most costly shot in silent movie history. Thousands of locals came to watch and were horrified because the dummy portraying the engineer was so life-like. The wreck stayed at the bottom of the river until brought up for scrap in WWII.
6. The movie premiered in two small theaters in Tokyo.
7. It is #18 in the 10th Anniversary edition of AFI’s 100 greatest films. It was not on the original list! It is #18 on the 100 Laughs list.
8. It is Keaton’s favorite film.

Belle and Blade = N/A
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = 5.0
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #42
Channel 4 = #65
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = no

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is actually fairly accurate in depicting the famous Andrews Raid in the Civil War. James Andrews and a group of Yankee volunteers hijacked "The General" at Big Shanty in April, 1862. The plan was to damage the rail line and to facilitate the Union offensive against Chattanooga. William Allen Fuller gave chase after his engine on foot, then hand-cart, then on the locomotive "Yonah" and later the "William R. Smith". Meanwhile, Andrews’ men were doing the damage depicted in the movie. Broken tracks forced Fuller back on foot until he acquired the "Texas". Fuller had to drive the "Texas" backwards, but he did gain ground on the "General".

Andrews’ mission ended in failure because Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave him time to effectively destroy the rail line. There was some bad luck involved as well. For instance, the attempt to burn a key bridge failed because the wood was wet from a recent rain. A flaming boxcar left on the bridge was pushed off by Fuller. Just a few miles from Chattanooga, the "General" ran out of fuel. Andrews and his men abandoned it and fled on foot, but they all were captured and treated as spies. Andrews and seven of the men were executed. Eight later escaped and six were exchanged. The first Medal of Honor were awarded to the Andrews Raiders.

OPINION: We are told that “The General” is a masterpiece, but if you weren’t told this you might miss that fact. It strikes me as more of a curio than a masterpiece. Although it holds up much better than most silent movies, I feel modern war movie lovers will wonder what all the fuss is about. It helps to know the effort that Keaton put into it – the National Guardsmen, the train crash, etc. It is impressive to realize that Keaton did all his own stunts. The movie is also admirably authentic in its weapons, uniforms, and equipment. And you learn how a train works which is a nice touch.

The movie has a lack of subtitles which forces the watcher to concentrate. That is a plus to me, but a turnoff to others. The cinematography is fine. The acting is spotty. Keaton, of course, is brilliant with his stoical persona. However, the supporting cast is your typical overly emotive silent movie actors. Mack (Keaton's girlfriend Annabelle) is particularly weak. The second chase is tedious and recycles elements from the first chase.

The big question is whether the movie is funny. Well, it is certainly not funny enough to be ranked the 18th funniest movie of all time. Most of the slapstick is on the silly side. There is a lot of falling down. Some of the sight gags are amazing. This includes the iconic sight of Keaton sitting on the drive shaft between the wheels as the train moves. The movie made me smile in spots, but seldom laugh. One of the funnier aspects of the film is how roughly Johnnie treats Annabelle. At least I think that was supposed to be funny. Keaton deserves credit for seamlessly blending the comedy into the narrative. The gags are not just thrown in to add humor periodically.

In conclusion, “The General” is a must-see movie and war movie, but it does not hold up well compared to the great modern war movies. It is very overrated.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
24. Stalingrad (1992)

SYNOPSIS: "Stalingrad" is a bleak film about a German squad caught in the Russian city towards the end of the siege. The men attempt to survive the increasingly desperate conditions. They face not only the enemy, but the snow, the lack of food, and the breakdown in morale and discipline.

BACK-STORY: “Stalingrad” was a major German production released in 1993. It was directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. It is in the German language. I found nothing of particular interest anecdotally.

Belle and Blade = 5.0
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = N/A
War Movies = N/A
Military History = #23
Channel 4 = #58
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = no

The movie is fictional and does not attempt to give an overview of the battle. It could be set in any number of urban combat scenarios. As a depiction of the trials of a typical squad of Germans caught up in the battle, it is fairly accurate. The weapons and equipment are authentic. There are bits of history within the fictional framework. Otto is put in a Penal Battalion which were units the Germans used to punish soldiers short of execution. A common job, as shown, was disarming land mines. The fighting in the sewers and in the factories is realistic. The trip to the airfield to try to get out was a common incident. Although meant for the wounded, there were desperate soldiers who tried to get on board the transports. The chaotic scene is authentic. The movie also alludes to the Luftwaffe’s (specifically Goering’s) ludicrous attempt to supply the surrounded army. Obviously, the breakdown in discipline toward the end is an accurate portrayal of the situation.

OPINION: “Stalingrad” is an admirable attempt to depict the battle from the perspective of a squad of the losers. We follow them from the sunny beach in Italy to the frozen rubble of Stalingrad. They become recognizable personalities. The unit is heterogeneous, but not too stereotypically so. It reminded me of “Platoon” in this respect. However, it does have some archetypes like the cynical veteran sergeant (Rohleder), the idealist (Reiser), the naïve novice (Muller), and the ambitious officer (Witzland). Unfortunately, the acting is pedestrian and the character development is flawed. Rollo should have been a strong character, but he does not develop into the insubordinate anti-hero he could have been. This was disappointing. Perplexing is more the word for Witzland’s evolution. He starts as a martinet, becomes an officer on the make, and then suddenly gets sensitive towards the enemy and ends up a deserting pacifist. While unorthodox, this arc is ridiculous.

The small unit dynamics are realistic and the soldier talk seems true to form. The interaction between the soldiers is not forced. It is instructive to see that the non-S.S. soldiers behaved like soldiers from any World War II army. Remember that not all German soldiers were Nazi fanatics. The movie also throws in a female Soviet soldier and a boy soldier, but the roles come off as attempts to humanize the Germans because they treat these enemy well. In reality, the Wehrmacht was not exactly sensitive toward those two types. Plus their appearances in the narrative are too plot enhancing. Speaking of which, the whole Bad German role was dripping with cliché.

The plot is not smooth. It does not integrate the big picture into the small world of the squad. It is one thing to depict the “fog of war”, but the audience should have an idea of why things are disintegrating. Too many incidents in the plot foreshadow future developments. This is the kind of movie that when an enemy character suddenly is injected into the plot and then exits, you know they will be reappearing. It was apparently a small world in Stalingrad.

The themes are appropriate. Vilsmaier is interested in filming the futility of war. What better way to make this point than focus on a German squad at Stalingrad? There’s no debating the movie is solidly anti-war. It also tends to be anti-military. Although Witzland and Musk are shown in a positive light, Haller (Bad German) is meant to represent the German officer corps. The other theme is comradeship. In this respect, the film does not break any new ground and does not compare well to movies like “Platoon”. The interplay is average in realism.

In conclusion, I had heard great things about this movie and I had every reason to believe I would enjoy it. It appeared on the surface to be my kind of war movie. Plus I am fascinated by the Battle of Stalingrad and have read books on the subject. I was shocked at how disappointing the movie was. It is very overrated. Sources that I trust rate it as a great war movie. They are wrong! It is not even the best movie about Stalingrad. That would be “Stalingrad: Dogs, Do You Want to Die?”
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
23. Platoon (1986)

SYNOPSIS: “Platoon” is the fictional tale of a platoon in Vietnam in the middle of the war. The unit has plenty of dysfunction and is divided between the dopers and the boozers. It is also divided in allegiance between its two veteran sergeants. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is the hard-core warrior who is not above matching the enemy’s atrocities. Elias (Willem Dafoe) is the disillusioned conscience of the unit. PFC Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is caught between these two mentors. The tension builds to a night battle.

BACK-STORY: “Platoon” is the semi-autobiographical account of Oliver Stone’s experiences in Vietnam. It came out seven years after “Apocalypse Now” and was followed soon after by “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill”. More than those other films, it impacted the movie-going public and Vietnam War veterans. It was cathartic. It became the definitive Vietnam War movie. The film was a big hit with audiences and most critics. Produced for only $6 million, it made $138 million. It was awarded the Best Picture Oscar and also won for Director, Sound Mixing, and Editing. It was nominated for Original Score and Cinematography. Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger got Supporting Actor nods. The movie is ranked #86 on AFI’s Top 100 list. The shooting was done in the Philippines (the Pentagon refused to support the film) and took only 54 days. The film was shot in sequence and this began immediately after the boot camp for the actors. Stone meant the film to be a counter to John Wayne’s “Green Berets”.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, imdb, Mental Floss, Tons of Facts

1. Oliver Stone served in Vietnam and the film is semi-autobiographical. For instance, the scene where Taylor saves the girl from being raped was based on an incident involving Stone. The Taylor character represents Stone. Stone wrote a screenplay about his experiences after the war entitled “Break”, but he could not get the financing for it so he went to film school. He had sent the script to Jim Morrison of the Doors and he still had it when he died. Stone saw Morrison in the Taylor role. Later, Stone adapted the original script into “The Platoon” and eventually got funding. Stone started with the premise of making a movie to counter “The Green Berets”.
2. It was the first Vietnam War movie written and directed by a Vietnam veteran.
3. The movie was filmed in the Philippines because the Pentagon refused to cooperate with it (for obvious reasons). It was shot in only 54 days for an amazing $6.5 million.
4. Dale Dye put the actors through a two-week boot camp that included digging fox holes, long marches, and night ambushes. The actors were deprived of food, water, sleep, and bathroom facilities to make them angry, irritable, and exhausted. Tom Berenger lost 28 pounds.
5. Dale Dye was the technical adviser and was in the cast as Capt. Harris. He also plays one of the helicopter gunners in the Elias death scene and he was in one of the body bags when Taylor arrives in Vietnam. He did most of the voices heard on the radios.
6. Stone suffered an attack of PTSD on set during the village scene.
7. Keith David saved Charlie Sheen’s life when a helicopter suddenly banked and he almost fell out.
8. Before the marijuana in the bunker scene, the actors got stoned and then felt bad when the cameras were rolling.
9. Lt. Wolfe is used as a how not to lead example in many military leadership courses.
10. Mickey Rourke turned down Barnes and Nick Nolte turned down Elias. Denzel Washington campaigned for the Elias role. Kevin Costner turned down Barnes out of respect for his brother, who was a Vietnam veteran. Stone cast Berenger (usually a good guy) and Willem Dafoe (usually a villain) against type.
11. Keanu Reeves, John Cusack, and Kyle MacLachlan turned down Taylor.
12. The movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Editing , and Sound. It was nominated for Supporting Actor (Berenger and Dafoe), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay.
13. It finished third at the box office in 1986 behind “Crocodile Dundee” and “Top Gun”.
14. It was #83 on AFI’s list of greatest movies and #86 on the 10th Anniversary list.
15. The actors chose how to decorate their helmets. Sheen put “When I die, bury me upside down because the world can kiss my ass!” Johnny Depp had “Sherilyn” after his current girlfriend Sherilyn Fenn. Mark Moses put a picture of Alfred E. Neuman with “What, me worry?”
16. In Elias death scene, the bullet blood squibs did not go off (you can see Dafoe holding the firing device), but the performance was so powerful Stone decided to go with it.
17. Stone had red dirt trucked in for authenticity.
18. The movie poster showing Elias with his arm up in the air was based on an acclaimed photo by Art Greenspon from 1968.
19. Stone had an actual RPG fired in the final battle for realism.
20. The final battle was based on a battle that Stone and Dye (as a military correspondent) were involved in. Stone’s 25th Infantry Division was surprise attacked at night by a large North Vietnamese force. Some of the enemy broke through. Air and artillery support were the deciding factors in the American victory. The U.S. lost 23 killed and claimed 348 enemy deaths. The battle is known as the New Years Day Battle of 1968. It has also been called the Battle of Firebase Burt and the Battle of Soui Cut.

Belle and Blade = 4.0
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = 3.8
War Movies = 5.0
Military History = #9
Channel 4 = #6
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #63

OPINION: I can still recall the impact “Platoon” had when it was released. Numerous articles examined the effect the film had on the Vietnam veteran community. Many vets claimed it was as close as anyone had gotten to what they had gone through. It was cathartic for many and caused many to open up for the first time. Most critics latched on to the film as the first true depiction of the war. “Platoon” became the first combat film to win Best Picture since “All Quiet on the Western Front”. Add to this the effect it had on the public in general. The entertaining nature of the film made it the definitive portrayal of the war for average Americans. Since that initial onslaught, the film has had a polarizing effect and has strong detractors.

“Platoon” on the surface seems to be your typical dysfunctional heterogeneous small unit movie. Stone does use the platoon to delve into the theme of divisiveness, but this is not a WWII or Korean War movie where each member represents an archetype. No one is from Brooklyn, Italian, a ladies man, a hick, etc. The dysfunction is created by the division between the dopers and the boozers. The acting is top notch. The ensemble is of up-and-comers and they show great promise. Sheen evinces the proper naivete and eventual loss of innocence. The showier roles of Elias and Barnes are nailed by Dafoe and Barnes (both of whom were nominated for Best Supporting Actor).

What sets the film apart from the standard war film is the metaphors. Stone is not subtle in his themes. Barnes and the boozers represent the right wingers in America during the war. Elias and the dopers represent the doves. Within this metaphor is Barnes as the win at all costs warrior and Elias is the disillusioned believer who now feels the war is unwinnable. Most of the platoon represents the lower class cannon fodder sent by rich people to fight their ideological war. Taylor stands out as the rarer idealistic volunteer fighting out of duty to American society. Much of this is heavy-handed, but Stone does not seem to care about making it subtle. For example, the boozers play poker (competition) while the dopers do singalongs (cooperation).

The movie flows smoothly. This is partly due to the fact that it was shot sequentially. The plot moves from soldier life to combat in an ebb and flow manner. The dialogue is a strength and the soldier talk is not dumbed down for the average viewer. “Snake and nape”? Anyone good at context clues should not be too lost.

In conclusion, to do this review, I watched the movie (for the fifth time, at least) and Stone’s commentary version and Dye’s take on the film. Plus the making-of documentary and the other extras. All this confirmed my original view when I saw the movie in a theater in 1986. This is a great movie and still the best Vietnam War movie. This is coming from a reviewer who admires all the other serious contenders (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket).

I am aware that there are some ranters against the movie. Stone is partly to blame by making comments about it being the realistic depiction of the war, instead of a realistic depiction of the war. Some veterans and pro-war types took offense to the negative portrayal of the soldiers and their actions. They assume that Stone was implying the platoon was typical. Stone was not apologetic about that impression. On the other hand, anyone who has argued that the incidents and personality types did not exist in Vietnam is being naïve. For instance, My Lai did happen and the incident in the movie was nowhere near the scale of that event. Besides, I do not feel the movie demonizes the American soldier in Vietnam. I cannot imagine people spitting on vets coming out of theaters. Empathy must have been the most common emotion.

"Platoon" deserves to be in the Top 10, which it is in both Military History magazine and Channel 4. It was hurt by middling reviews from three of my four books. It does have a polarizing effect on critics.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
22. Battle of Algiers (1966)

SYNOPSIS: "The Battle of Algiers" is about the Algerian independence movement set in the capital of Algiers. It chronicles the guerrilla warfare tactics and the French counterinsurgency efforts. Terrorist bombings lead to torture interrogations and a surge by the French Army.

BACK-STORY: “The Battle of Algiers” is an Italian/Algerian production released in 1966. The film was subsidized by the Algerian government. It was directed by Italian Gillo Pontecorvo in the neorealist style. He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar and the film also got nods for Original Screenplay and Foreign Language Film. It won numerous international awards. The movie was banned in France for many years and the torture scenes were edited for the U.S. (I must have seen one of the edited versions) and the United Kingdom.

TRIVIA: wikipedia, imdb

1. The director brought in Ennio Morricone (who scored all of Sergio Leone’s films) to collaborate on the score. Pontecorvo had a melody in mind for use in the film and was humming it when he went to see Morricone in his home. When he arrived, before he could make his suggestion, Morricone proposed a very similar melody. Pontecorvo was elated at the coincidence and only later was told by Morricone that he had heard him humming the melody and had pranked him.
2. The only professional actor was Jean Martin (Col. Matthieu). He had been in the French Resistance in WWII and then was a paratrooper in the Indochina War. As an actor, he was dismissed from the Theatre National Populaire for signing a manifesto opposing the Algerian War.
3. The movie was banned from France for the first five years. The director received death threats.
4. It supposedly inspired the Black Panthers, IRA, and PLO.
5. The movie was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 in relation to counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. The invitation mentioned “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.
6. It is one of the rare films to get Oscar nominations in separate years. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1966 and Director and Screenplay in 1968.

Belle and Blade = 5.0
Brassey’s = 5.0
Video Hound = 4.4
War Movies = 4.4
Military History = #24
Channel 4 = #64
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #3

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is set in the Algerian War of Independence which lasted from 1954-1962. Algeria had been a French colony since 1830. The FLN (National Liberation Front) was created in March, 1954. It consisted of socialists, anti-colonialists, and Islamists. The movie was inspired by the memoir “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger” by an FLN commander named Saadi Yacef (he basically plays himself as Djafar in the film). The war began with the Toussaint Rouge (“Red All Saints’ Day”) incident when the FLN launched thirty attacks on military and police targets. French colonists (colons) demanded retaliation. Colons conducted ratonnades (rat-hunts) to kill suspected FLN members and collaborators. In August, 1955 the FLN reacted with the massacre of French civilians in the town of Philippeville. Previously, the FLN had limited itself to military and police targets. The gloves were off now. A classic guerrilla war was underway. Tit for tat. Torture for torture. The French army attacked villages deemed sympathetic to the FLN. Villagers were relocated to strategic hamlet-like locations. Meanwhile, the FLN was conducting kidnappings and performing ritual murder and mutilation of French soldiers.

The Battle of Algiers began when members of a French militia planted a bomb in a Casbah apartment building resulting in the deaths of 73 Algerians. This is the incident depicted in the film. This led to the other historical depiction. Three Algerian female militants planted bombs in a milk bar, a cafeteria, and a travel agency.

The French government started a counterinsurgency campaign with a large increase in troops deployed to Algeria. The total peaked at 400,000 (including 170,000 loyal Muslim Algerians). Gen. Massau (the inspiration for Matthieu) was allowed to operate outside the legal barriers which means he could use torture methods to interrogate. The movie accurately portrays the success of his methods. The terrorist cells were rooted out and the insurgency collapsed in Algiers. Ironically, this victory sowed the seeds of the eventual French defeat as the French public began to question involvement in Algiers. This had some similarities to the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.

The French used search and destroy methods and raised units of loyal Muslim irregulars. You can guess what methods they used in what was essentially a civil war inside the war of independence. Sound familiar? The movie chooses not to reference the civil war aspect of the conflict.

In May, 1958, the colons and French army officers overthrew the 4th French Republic and De Gaulle returned to power. To their chagrin, DeGaulle decided to seek a peaceful solution to the quagmire. Eventually a referendum was held that allowed the Algerian people to vote in favor of independence.

OPINION: I was not too impressed at first, but the movie builds nicely. It does not take long to realize you are watching something special. The style is very similar to “Rome, Open City”, but it is more polished. Both come from the neo-realist school popular in Italy at that time. “Battle of Algiers” has all the bells and whistles. Hand held cameras, grainy film, use of nonprofessional actors, the newsreel look, prominent roles for kids.

The acting is surprisingly good considering there is only one professional actor in the cast. Jean Martin plays Matthieu with gravitas. He is played as a reasonable villain. His lectures on counterinsurgency to his officers and his condescending interplay with the press are very military. He’s a charismatic Westmoreland (the U.S, commanding general in Vietnam). One strength of the acting is you would not know that he was the only professional. The other main actors do not come off as amateurish. There are strong female characters and the boy Petit Omar is depicted as a valuable member of the FLN.

The themes are instructional on guerrilla warfare. The movie clearly portrays the escalation that is inescapable in a guerrilla war. Anyone conversant with the Vietnam War or the Filipino War for Independence will not be surprised with the dynamics of the film. The suffering of innocents caught in the middle of the conflict is another theme. Guerrillas being faces in the crowd and blending into the populace is another. Matthieu represents the “end justifies the means” approach often taken by conventional forces faced with an insurgency.

“The Battle of Algiers” is an important film that lives up to its billing. It supposedly inspired guerrilla and terrorist groups like the Black Panthers and IRA. In 2003, it was screened at the Pentagon during the Iraq War. It’s a pity it was not required viewing at the Pentagon in 1968 during the Vietnam War.

In conclusion, “The Battle of Algiers” is justifiably lauded by critics as a classic movie. It reminds of movies like “Battleship Potemkin” and “Rome, Open City” in that respect. Normally, I don’t put much stock into the term “classic”. In this case, I think the movie holds up well. I especially give it credit for being an accurate account of a military event that is not well known, at least not in the U.S. I would not have it as high as #22, but it belongs in the top 100. There is no better movie on insurgency versus counterinsurgency.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
21. MASH (1970)

SYNOPSIS: "M*A*S*H" is set in an Army surgical hospital in the Korean War. Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Trapper John (Elliot Gould), and Duke (Tom Skerritt) are three doctors who buck the system and deal with the stress through a cynical, prankster mentality. The movie is an anti-war satire.

BACK-STORY: “M*A*S*H” is a Robert Altman film released in 1970. It is loosely based on the novel by Richard Hooker. The screenplay was by ex-blacklistee Ring Lardner, Jr. He was upset with the liberties (ex. improvisations) Altman took with the script, but still accepted the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Lardner was not the only one upset with Altman. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould tried to get him fired because they did not like his gonzo directing style. Altman also had trouble with the suits. They wanted him to take out the graphic operation visuals, but backed down partly because they were distracted by their two big projects – “Patton” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!”. The studio did succeed in insisting on references to the Korean War be inserted into the film so noone would mistake it for Vietnam. Mission not accomplished. 14 of the top 30 actors were making their movie debuts. The film was a smash hit as it tapped into the iconoclastic mood of the early 70s. It was nominated for five Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing, and Supporting Actress – Sally Kellerman). It won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical. It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. It is #54 on the AFI list of all movies and #7on the Comedy list.

TRIVIA: Wikipedia, imdb, TCM

1. It is based on Richard Hooker’s novel MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors. However, director Robert Altman found the novel terrible and racist and used little from it. The screenplay was written by Ring Lardner, Jr. but it served as basically an outline because Altman encouraged improvisation and little of the dialogue ended up in the film. Lardner was upset about this, but he did win the Best Adapted Screenplay. He probably did not deserve it.
2. Altman got the job after the first fourteen directors (including Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols) turned it down.
3. It was nominated for Best Picture (losing to “Patton”), Director (losing to “Patton”), Sally Kellerman for Supporting Actress (losing to Helen Hayes for “Airport”), and Editing. It won what later was called the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It won the Golden Globe for Musical of Comedy.
4. The studio was going to insist on substantial rewriting until a test audience loved it. It did insist on a caption specifying that it was set in the Korean War, although the loudspeaker announcements made this clear.
5. Altman wanted a song called “Suicide Is Painless” and he wanted it to be stupid. When adults could not make it stupid enough, he turned to his fourteen-year old son Mike. Because the song was used in the TV show, Mike made over $2 million in royalties. His father made only $75,000 for the movie.
6. The table scene before Painless commits suicide was set up like Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” with Painless as Jesus.
7. It was #56 on AFIs 100 Greatest Films. It moved up to #54 in the 10th Anniversary list. It is #7 on the Laughs list. The song is #66.
8. In the famous shower scene, Sally Kellerman was always already on the floor when the side came down. Altman and Gary Burghoff came in the tent and dropped their pants to distract her for the take that made the film (and won her an Oscar nomination). That scene and Hot Lips subsequent meltdown in Henry’s office caused Altman to insert Kellerman into additional scenes, like as a cheerleader.
9. Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland did not like Altman’s directing style, especially the overlapping dialogue. They also chafed over too much attention going to secondary characters. They went to studio executives to get him fired, unsuccessfully. Gould later apologized and worked with Altman again. Sutherland didn’t and didn’t.
10. A lot of the announcements were added after editing began (they had to do some additional shooting of the loudspeaker) to give the movie more structure.
11. 14 of the top 28 billed actors were making their film debuts, including Burghoff and John Shuck.
12. The earlier “Battle Circus” starring Humphrey Bogart as a doctor was to be called “MASH”, but the studio thought people would think it was about potatoes.
13. The only shot that is heard in this war movie is the pistol that ends the football game.

Belle and Blade = 4.0
Brassey’s = 4.0
Video Hound = 5.0
War Movies = 5.0
Military History = #33
Channel 4 = #22
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #68

ACCURACY: The movie does not purport to be a true story, but the novel is semi –autobiographical so we can assume the operating room scenes are authentic. The episodes (ex. the football game, the trip to Japan) seem made up. The movie conforms to the book for the most part. All of the major episodes are in the book, but improved upon in my opinion. For instance, Painless Pole is suffering from a periodic bout of depression and does not have sex with a nurse to cure it. The movie also leaves out some of the weaker parts of the book so it is superior to its source. In the book, the trio are meaner drunks than in the movie.

OPINION: MASH is a movie that defies conventions. It mixes realism with dark humor. Much of the dialogue was improvised which you would not realize by watching the movie. Altman likes to overlap the dialogue, especially in the operating scenes. This makes the movie seem more intelligent than it is. The cinematography is also noteworthy. Altman uses a lot of fly on the wall shots. Some of these shots are long range and static. This is seen best in the “Last Supper” scene. We are put in the middle of the action in the operating room scenes. Action and dialogue swirl around the viewer.

The movie made a big splash with the Vietnam anti-war movement, but there is little in the dialogue that criticizes war. The movie is definitely anti-war in the operating room simply because the audience gets to see the results of combat. The insanity of war does come through. For the most part it is more of an anti-military film. All the negative characters are loyal to the Army and want to follow its rules. A corollary to that is the anti-authority theme. Most of the authority figures are incompetent and deserve to be taken down. Perhaps not surprisingly, Altman does not give the trio a competent foil. Contrast this with Col. Potter in the TV series. On the other hand, Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Duke are anti-heroes typical of 70s counterculture flicks. As a teacher (and not an incompetent one), I have had students like them and they are much more fun on a movie screen than in a classroom.

The movie is episodic in structure. Altman arrived at the loudspeaker announcements as bridges to the new episode. This device works, but the announcements are overrated as humor. Speaking of humor, the movie does have some great one-liners. However, much of the humor is crass and mean. Some it would be considered politically incorrect today. You have characters named “Spearchucker” and “Dago Red” and a scenario where a dentist would rather be dead than gay. The movie is also anti-religion, but Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois) comes off well. Many war movies would be better if remade because of the lowered constraints on language and violence. This movie is not one of them.

In conclusion, M*A*S*H is a unique movie. MASH is one of the great war comedies and an important one. It may be second only to “Dr. Strangelove”. It certainly was unlike any other war comedy made before it. There are few war movies that concentrate on military medicine, much less of the dark humor variety.
May 2011
New Iberia, La.
20. The Great Escape (1963)

SYNOPSIS: Shame on you, if you need this section. TGE is the true story of a mass escape from a German POW camp in WWII. This is done via a tunnel. The movie covers the construction of the tunnel, the escape, and then follows several of the escapees when they are on the lam.

BACK-STORY: “The Great Escape” is a WWII prisoner of war movie. It was released in 1963 and was a huge hit and has grown in popularity over the years. It is the most famous movie in its subgenre. The film was directed by John Sturges and is based on the nonfiction book by Paul Brickhill. Brickhill was a prisoner in Stalag Luft III and helped with the escape although he was not one of the escapees. His book and the movie are dedicated to the fifty escapees who did not survive. The main screenwriter was James Clavell who spent time in a Japanese prison camp and later wrote the screenplay for “King Rat”. One of the tunnelers (Wally Floody) served as a technical advisor. Donald Pleasance was a prisoner in Stalag Luft 1 during the war. Steve McQueen insisted the motorcycle scenes be written in and did the stunts, not including the last jump (for insurance reasons).


1. Bartlett is based on Squadron Leader Roger Bushell who was Cambridge-educated with British parents, but he was born and raised in South Africa. He was a great skier and the scar that Attenborough sported was based on a skiing accident he had. He was shot down on his first combat mission.
2. The tunnels were dug 30’ down to circumvent the German seismograph equipment.
3. The 200 penguins disposed of 130 tons of sand in 25,000 trips. When winter came and the sand could not be blended with the snow and hard ground, they put it under the floor of the theater the Germans allowed them to build.
4. Tom was discovered because they were rushing to complete it before the Americans were to be transferred to another camp. No Americans escaped.
5. Suspecting an escape attempt, the Germans at one point transferred 19 suspected ringleaders, but curiously not Bushell. They only netted six key members of the escape committee.
6. 600 of the total 1,500 prisoners played some role in the escape. When it was decided to get 200 out the priority was the first 30 would be prisoners who had language skills and other advantages, the next 70 were rewarded for their work, and the rest were chosen by lot.
7. Of the 50 prisoners who were caught and executed, all but seven were RAF. 22 were British, 6 were Canadians, 6 were Poles, and 4 were Australians.
8. 21 Germans were executed after the war for the war crime of executing the prisoners.
9. The wooden horse escape occurred one year earlier in the same camp. All three men successfully escaped which equaled the number in the Great Escape.
10. The prisoners convinced the Germans that “goons” was an acronym for “German Officer or Non-Com”. The prisoners kept log books of goon movements. The Germans knew about this and at one point a German officer asked to see a log book to check up on his men.
11. The most valuable prop was milk tins provided by the Red Cross. They were used for shovels and for the ventilation ducts.
12. Charles Bronson had been a coal miner and had suffered from claustrophobia. During the shoot, he fell in love with David McCallum’s wife Jill Ireland. He joked that he was going to steal her. When the McCallum’s divorced four years later, Bronson married Jill.
13. Steve McQueen got caught by a speed trap set up near the set. McQueen was upset with his amount of screen time and at one point walked out. He was not happy that Hilts did not like the whole baseball and mitt thing.
14. Donald Pleasence had been a POW in a German camp. When he first gave director Sturges advice, Sturges told him to mind his own business until he found out his background.
15. McQueen attempted the big jump but failed. His friend Bud Elkins was brought in. Elkins managed a motorcycle shop in L.A. He later did most of the stunt work on CHIPS. McQueen did the stunt where the German motorcyclist ran into the wire. McQueen was among the Germans that chased Hilts in the final jump scene through the wonders of editing.
16. James Garner based his scrounger character on his experiences in the Korean War. The barbed wire was rubber and entwined by the cast and crew during breaks.
17. McCallum and James Leyton are the only survivors of the stars. Leyton was a pop star and recorded the opening theme with lyrics.
18. Goff’s (Jud Taylor) line during the drinking scene “No taxation without representation!” was ad-libbed and took McQueen by surprise.
19. United Artists was worried about the lack of females. They wanted to have a buxom beauty cradle Ashley-Pitt when he was shot at the railway station. They suggested holding a Miss Prison Camp contest, but Sturges nixed the idea.
20. McQueen was paid $87,500, but Garner made $150,000.

Belle and Blade = 3.0
Brassey’s = 5.0
Video Hound = 5.0
War Movies = 4.4
Military History = #44
Channel 4 = #3
Film Site = yes
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #45

OPINION: I have to be up front about the fact that this was my favorite movie when I was growing up. This was back when I and my brothers got to see it once a year on network TV. That was always a great night in our house. I may have seen it more than any other movie (not counting movies I have shown in class for decades). Sometimes our childhood favorites do not hold up when we watch them through adult eyes. This is not the case with “The Great Escape”. It was and still is one of the classic war movies.

The movie is an expert blend of suspense, action, and humor. The humor works very well. It is dry and used sparingly, but effectively. Some of the lines are memorable. For instance, the ferrets bust in to the washroom and narrowly miss the trap door to Harry being sealed. Danny hustles into the shower and when the guard asks Sedgwick what he is doing there he responds “Watching him. I’m the life guard.”

The camp was constructed near Munich and accurately recreates a Stalag in layout, if not in atmosphere. The tunnel set allows for a cutaway view of the digging. The scenes are truly claustrophobic and the ever-present danger of cave-ins adds to the suspense. The scenes outside the camp are authentic-looking since the movie was filmed in Europe.

The movie does a great job in its structure. The buildup to the escape concentrates on character development and is tutorial on the work that went on. This could have been tedious, but the injection of humor and Steve McQueen keep the narrative flowing. The movie, to its credit does not have a prolonged denouement after the escape. The alternating getaways are deftly juggled and suspenseful. Hilts motorcycle capers dominate, but they are edited such that we have to come back to him at least four times before the famous climactic jump sequence.

The movie ends on a sober note with the murders and the question – was it worth it? However, if ever there were a war movie that is not anti-war, this is it. Life in the camp is portrayed like it would be if you went to a POW fantasy camp. It seems like fun, which it assuredly was not. This is the biggest factor in keeping the movie from being an A+.

Finally, the acting is stellar. Whoever did the casting gets a gold star. The mix of dependable British thespians with cocky Americans is stimulating. This is an actors’ movie. In particular, watch Steve McQueen steal every scene with little eye-catching movements including shameful mugging. His co-stars either had sharing natures or were infuriated. Whatever, McQueen became a superstar based on his performance.

In conclusion, it is appropriate that it made the top 20. I would have it higher, but that’s my opinion. It is a much better movie than the next on the list, for instance. It has everything that makes a war movie great. It is entertaining. It tells a story that deserves to be told. It teaches. It is accurate enough. It is realistic. Sometimes 14-year old boys are right. This is a truly great movie!
Likes: Edratman

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